Craig W. Anderson
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is back with its plan to expand the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge corridor west of Modesto into San Joaquin County west of Manteca. The refuge would swell from 12,887 acres to more than 35,000 acres.
According to the plan, acquiring half the land from willing sellers would take about 50 years with the probability that the public will be granted access to parts of the refuge during this process.
"This would put a 50-year cloud over a landowner’s title," said Bruce Blodgett, SJFB executive director. "It would make selling land nearly impossible, unless you sold it to the government which would be the only buyer in the future."
He also said, "Fish and Wildlife hasn’t consulted directly with Farm Bureau, farmers, ranchers or ag businesses that would be affected by the expanded refuge. The community, the board of supervisors, agricultural commissioner and land owners vehemently oppose this plan but Fish and Wildlife’s moving ahead anyway which is typical of the service."
If approved, the federal government would purchase land from willing sellers along the river and remove land from farming by planting trees, brush and other vegetation to provide habitat for birds and other species, including those threatened and endangered.
What would the economic end result be of the expansion? "Complex and speculative," said the report, about which San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors member Ken Vogel said, "That says it all about the government and its lack of planning. The impact on crop values and the economy of the area hasn’t been determined."
Ag creates jobs, increased value
"Agriculture is a base industry here, producing countless related jobs that are dependent on one another," said SJFB President Bruce Fry. "The loss of ag production in the region will have a ripple effect on a number of businesses such as processing, trucking, suppliers, banking and many other industries."
According to the plan, thousands of tourists would flock to the refuge and would patronize local businesses as would those working on the refuge. "Tourism won’t come close to replacing the revenue lost as the refuge replaces farms," Blodgett said.
The area within the planned expansion produces crops worth about $24.5 million with an economic multiplier that adds $4-5 to every dollar of the ag value.
San Joaquin County would also lose more than $400,000 in property taxes.
Threat to prime ag land
San Joaquin County Resource Conservation District board member Molly Watkins pointed out in a letter to Fish and Wildlife’s Richard Smith that the district opposed the expansion because, "Most of the farmland in the study area is listed by the State of California as ‘Prime Farmland" with the majority of the remaining land "listed as either ‘Farmland of Statewide Importance’ or ‘Unique Farmland.’"
"This idea for an expanded refuge is all bad," she said. "Fish and Wildlife will control thousands of acres, and they’ll pay hundreds of millions to replace habitat when farmers and ranchers already provide it. This is an inappropriate project to consider during a time when our county, state and nation are nearly bankrupt."
And, said Blodgett, "We know as surely as night follows day, this sets the stage for future land acquisition by the federal government."
Where’s the safe harbor?
Any refuge plan has to be compatible for neighboring farmers who aren’t participating in the plan and it seems obvious that a safe harbor agreement is imperative to protect adjacent landowners.
Is there a safe harbor element in this plan? "No," said Blodgett; "This is dangerous without a safe harbor component," said Ken Vogel, member of the board of supervisors; "No safe harbor; where has common sense gone?" Watkins said.
"Birds and other wildlife don’t understand property boundaries," said Katie Patterson, SJFB program director. "So the question is: What is the safe harbor for landowners if an Endangered Species Act incident occurs? The ESA could be a nightmare and neighboring farmers and landowners need protection from ESA incidents."
"Having a refuge as a neighbor means that ongoing ag practices are at risk of conflicting with the habitat, and of course the loss of few thousand acres of prime ag land is contrary to both state law and local ordinances," said John Herrick, counsel and manager of the South Delta Water Agency. "Farmers have proposed that significant habitat benefits can be negotiated with landowners and the service without taking or diminishing ag. Why such an approach is unacceptable is unknown."
SJFB members undermined
Fry said in a letter to the service that Farm Bureau believes "this expansion will undermine the ability of our members to actively manage their working landscapes in a manner best suited for flood protection, food production, and habitat values." About habitat values, Fry said, "Most species listed under the Endangered Species Act are found on private lands, so instead of expanding federal landholdings, incentives should be provided through USDA programs to enhance the ability of landowners to maintain the habitat and keep the land in private hands."
"There is a great concern about the impact of the refuge on ag," Vogel said. "This would take a lot of land out of production and the introduction of tourists into the refuge may not work. We’ve had problems on the Mokelumne River with people coming down the river, coming ashore, picnicking, leaving trash on private property and causing noise problems. This could easily happen with the refuge."
"The plan is very ambitious," said Mary Hildebrand, a landowner within the proposed refuge.
And it’s very vague in many ways Hildebrand discovered when she and other parcel owners along the river attended a public meeting in June in Modesto to provide their views to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"We represented every parcel on the river and were startled that the Fish and Wildlife representatives didn’t seem to realize their expansion plan extended into the south Delta," Hildebrand said. "They also didn’t know the geography of the area cannot form wetlands, didn’t seem to understand the hydrology of the area, and apparently felt farmers don’t provide habitat."
The group did discover that Fish and Wildlife has no mitigation obligations to provide a like amount of land elsewhere for that taken by the federal government for the refuge.
Do we need Fish & Wildlife? Probably not
"There are other ways to do this without the involvement of the Fish and Wildlife Service," Hildebrand said. "This can be done by partnering with private organizations without having to give up land to the federal government. We just don’t want federal agencies in our county."
"We have plenty of voluntary projects out there helping the environment," said Patterson. However the Fish and Wildlife Service may not know this because, she said, "Fish and Wildlife hasn’t reached out to community groups or agriculture to get their opinions. The service has failed to implement a process of public inclusion despite knowing there is widespread opposition to this plan."
Fish and Wildlife doesn’t pay its bills
Herrick said in a letter to Fish and Wildlife’s Smith detailing, among other things, the immunity of the federal government to pay taxes, fees and assessments on land it owns.
Would Fish and Wildlife pay its fair share on land it owns in the refuge? Not likely, based on past performance. "Currently the Fish and Wildlife owns a small amount of land within the South Delta Water Agency [and] each year they are assessed by the agency and each year they do not pay," Herrick wrote. "Thus, if the service purchased any lands within our area it would decrease the local assessments for Reclamation Districts, South Delta Water Agency, and county and state taxes."
"It should be noted that the feds being your neighbor is the worst possible situation, bar none," he said. "The feds do not abide by any local or state law, they simply do what they always do – screw things up. There is no consideration for local assessments, county taxes and no participation in common interests."
"Fish and Wildlife isn’t concerned about floods," said Blodgett. The service says destructive downstream floods could be mitigated by allowing river water to spread out over riparian flood plains. "Flooding riparian areas … which ones? Reclaimed riparian areas? Will water flow from refuge land onto private land?"
Herrick pointed out that Fish and Wildlife’s plan to periodically flood lands to provide seasonal habitat is a goal "contrary to the obligations of local reclamation district which are charged with protecting lands behind the private and public levee systems along the river."
It is important to note that the relative elevations of the land and river stages [and] the slope of the lands in our areas do not lend themselves to any effective overflow habitat and, Herrick noted, "It is only during rare, extremely high flows that overflow is possible and then the water quickly flows down slope rather than providing habitat of any duration."
Patterson also attended the Modesto meeting and said that the Fish and Wildlife representatives presented no information as to how current National Wildlife Refuge’s are being financed and had no comment about financing the refuge.
"If the federal government has no money now and wants to create a project requiring money for maintenance and oversight, who will assume the burden if more funding is required?" Patterson said no answers were forthcoming. "Has Fish and Wildlife done their due diligence? No."
Ersatz eminent domain
Extending the refuge system into San Joaquin County "immediately places a cloud on the title of private lands within the area identified by the agency," said Fry. "This basically ensures there will be one, and only one, purchaser of the lands identified: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
This greatly undermines the free market system, he said, impairs land values, and dictates that it is only a "matter of time before this land is in federal ownership. Farm Bureau cannot support this outcome under any circumstances."
Thus, a unique, de facto form of eminent domain is created by Fish and Wildlife wherein the federal government, by purchasing land for the refuge becomes the only buyer in an area where the refuge creates willing buyers.
Commented Vogel: "The federal government becomes the only game in town for any ‘willing seller.’"
Refuge water challenges
In her letter, Watkins points out that "an expanded refuge will only serve to exacerbate the water supply problem … [and] could force further reliance on local groundwater and make the county’s groundwater overdraft and saltwater intrusion challenges even more difficult."
For questions and concerns, or for more information, write to Richard Smith, Refuge Planning, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 8, at 2800 Cottage Way, W-1832, Sacramento, CA 95825, or call (916) 414-6502. Also, Kim Forrest, Project Leader, San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, P.O. Box 2176, Los Banos, CA 93635, or (209) 826-3508.
The Refuge Planning website is http://www.fws.gov/cno/refuges/.